FOXBOROUGH — There will come a time when Tom Brady is old and gray and faded like an old photograph. In those days, we will look back upon games like Saturday’s playoff contest with the Baltimore Ravens wistfully, appreciating just what a luxury it was to have No. 12 at quarterback.
The Patriots don’t squeak by and advance in a 35-31 instant classic of an AFC divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium without Brady, who twice rallied the Patriots from a 14-point deficit to author the largest playoff comeback in franchise history.
All that talk all season about the improved Patriots defense giving Brady the leeway to not enter a playoff game with the mind-set that he had to score 30 points to win was proven correct. Brady didn’t need 30 points to punch the Patriots’ ticket to a fourth straight AFC title game. He needed 35 and dry ice in his veins on the winning fourth-quarter drive. Brady might be in decline, but if it weren’t for him, the Patriots would be reclining in their La-Z-Boys this week.
Brady threw a 23-yard touchdown pass to Brandon LaFell with 5:13 to go to put the Ravens in the Patriots’ rearview mirror for good. It was the 46th playoff touchdown pass of his career, moving him past his boyhood idol, Joe Montana, for the most in NFL history.
If the football gods are in a generous mood, we will get yet another Brady-Peyton Manning meeting in the AFC Championship game. This one on Tom’s Turf. Next Sunday’s AFC Championship game will be Brady’s ninth, an NFL record.
But Brady’s NFL-record 19th playoff win didn’t come easily.
Baltimore, which led, 31-28, with 10:17 to go, pushed Brady and the Patriots to the precipice of playoff disaster. Brady stared down at the abyss and, with some help from creative play-calling from Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, pulled the Patriots back.
“I can’t say enough about Tom Brady,” said guard Ryan Wendell, who had to slide over to center when Bryan Stork got injured in the first half. “There is a reason why everybody knows his name. The guy knows what he is doing, and Tom is competitive. He doesn’t let anything get him down. He always comes back and does his job.”
Coming into this game, all of the talk was about Joe Flacco’s playoff oeuvre. Flacco came in having won an NFL-record seven road playoff games. He hadn’t thrown a playoff interception in 166 attempts and had 13 touchdowns and no picks in his previous five playoff games.
Flacco (292 yards with four TDs and two interceptions) was good. But Brady, who was 33 of 50 for a franchise-playoff-record 367 yards, with three TDs and one interception, was the quarterback worthy of a playoff pedestal when it mattered most.
On the go-ahead drive, Brady was as much a maestro as John Williams. He was 8 of 9 for 72 yards on the drive.
The lone ball to hit the turf was by design, a throwaway.
“It felt like a long day in practice. Everybody is tired and everybody is complaining, and you look at Tom and he’s just calm,” said LaFell of the final drive. “He is putting us in the right plays. He is just going out there spreading the ball around and making plays for us.”
Brady was required to make a lot of plays in the second half; he didn’t hand off once.
Brady hadn’t enjoyed much success against the rakish Ravens in the playoffs. He came in 1-2 against Baltimore, completing 56 percent of his passes and throwing three touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Early on, it looked like it would be more of the same as the Patriots fell into a 14-0 hole against Playoff Joe and the unflappable Ravens. The Patriots were outgained, 145-16, in that span.
Brady showed early on he was willing to sacrifice his body. On third and goal from the Ravens’ 4, Brady took it himself, beating Baltimore linebacker Daryl Smith to the end zone.
Hearts started beating again across New England. They were fluttering with excitement after Brady threw a tying TD pass to Danny Amendola with 3:37 left in the half.
The naysayers who claim that Brady has lost the clutch touch that got him three Super Bowl rings got some ammunition right before the half. Brady locked on to Rob Gronkowski with hungry eyes and threw an inexcusable interception at the Baltimore 43 with 63 seconds left in the half. That led to a Flacco TD pass to Owen Daniels with 10 seconds left to go up, 21-14.
Brady was captured by the NBC cameras on the sideline with his head in his hands in distress.
“Yeah, it was a terrible play by me,” said Brady. “I just made a terrible decision.”
Another Super Bowl-title-less season appeared to be on the horizon after Flacco hit an uncovered Justin Forsett to put Baltimore up, 28-14, with 10:22 left in the third.
Then the Patriots dug into their bag of tricks, confounding the Ravens and the officials.
But Brady hit Gronkowski for a 5-yard score with 6:48 to go in the third, and just 2:28 later the Patriots tied the game on another touchdown pass. But this one wasn’t thrown by Brady. Brady threw a lateral to wide receiver Julian Edelman, a quarterback at Kent State, and Edelman hit a wide-open Amendola for a 51-yard score and a tie.
“He throws it better than I do,” said Brady. “He spun it. It was a perfect spiral, right in stride. We have to make some rules that he can’t throw it better than I can. He did.”
That bit of passing prestidigitation was a prelude to a heart-stopping fourth quarter, when Brady delivered once again.
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.